Recent Publications

O. Morin, J. Winters, T.F. Müller, T. Morisseau, C. Etter, S.J. Greenhill.
What smartphone apps may contribute to language evolution research.
Thomas F. Müller and James Winters, "Compression in cultural evolution: Homogeneity and structure in the emergence and evolution of a large-scale online collaborative art project," PLoS One 13 (9), e0202019 (2018).
Olivier Morin and Helena Miton, "Detecting wholesale copying in cultural evolution," Evolution and Human Behavior 39, 392-401 (2018).
Olena Tykhostup and Piers Kelly, "A diachronic comparison of the Vai script of Liberia (1834–2005)," Journal of Open Humanities Data 4, 2 (2018).
Michael Pleyer, Stefan Hartmann, James Winters, and Jordan Zlatev, "Interaction and iconicity in the evolution of language," Interaction studies 18 (3), 303-313 (2017).
Olivier Morin and Alberto Acerbi, "Birth of the cool: a two-centuries decline in emotional expression in Anglophone fiction," Cognition and Emotion 31 (8), 1663-1675 (2017).
Olivier Mascaro, Olivier Morin, and Dan Sperber, "Optimistic expectations about communication explain children's difficulties in hiding, lying, and mistrusting liars," Journal of Child Language 44 (5), 1041-1064 (2017).
Piers Kelly, "The origins of invented vocabulary in a utopian Philippine language," Asia-Pacific Language Variation 2 (1), 82-120 (2016).
Olivier Morin, "Reasons to be fussy about cultural evolution," Biology and Philosophy 31, 1-12 (2016).
Olivier Morin, "The disunity of cultural group selection," Behavioral and Brain Sciences , e46 (2016).
Piers Kelly, "Excavating a hidden bell story from the Philippines: a revised narrative of cultural-linguistic loss and recuperation," Journal of Folklore Research 53 (2), 86-113 (2016).

Research group leader

Dr. Olivier Morin


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The Mint

We just released our Color Game app for smartphones!

The Minds & Traditions research group (aka "the Mint") is a Max Planck Independent Research Group opened in 2016. We explore the origins and evolution of graphic codes. All humans can communicate with sounds (or gestures) that encode information in a standardised way, using the same code in a wide variety of domains. Yet most humans in the course of our evolution had no similar use for permanent images: there was no all-purpose standard code for graphic communication. Many societies now use only ad hoc graphic codes, useful in a few contexts only. All-purpose graphic codes emerged only slowly and recently, at first for very small numbers of users.

At the Mint, cognitive science, linguistic anthropology and quantitative cultural history gather forces to shed light on the evolution of graphic communication. We study visual culture and graphic communication in a broad sense that encompasses all graphic codes, from writing systems to mnemonic pictographs, heraldry, and coinage. We study them in a comparative and evolutionary perspective, combining the fruits of cultural history and anthropology with an experimental approach. Simulating the evolution of graphic codes in the lab allows us to test and generate hypotheses that feed exchanges between experimentalists, cultural historians, and anthropologists.

The Mint shares in the broad ambition of the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution: we want to contribute to a new interdisciplinary culture that brings quantitative tools to the study of cultural change. While our methodological background is strongly influenced by experimental approaches, we take every opportunity to test our hypotheses outside the lab—to make them robust, replicable, and relevant. All studies run at the Mint, experimental or not, follow state-of-the-art good practices: systematic preregistration, open data, and open code.


How letters got their shape

The visual appearance of most scripts corresponds with the basic constraints of the human visual system, thus facilitating the perception and processing of letters. For example, cardinals (horizontal and vertical lines), which our brains perceive more fluently than oblique lines, are also more numerous. The idea that cultural inventions like writing need to adapt to basic cognitive constraints has currency among cognitive scientists and anthropologists, but the cultural evolution of this phenomenon is poorly known. The Mint investigates it using the quantitative tools that our department applies to the evolution of languages, and combining them with methods and results coming from experimental psychology.

This research yields two kinds of results. First, we validate laboratory results for the first time outside the lab: we show that the psychophysical biases documented experimentally have real cultural consequences. For instance, we showed that the vast majority of the world's scripts obeyed complex constraints related to the organisation of cardinal and oblique straight lines in letters. Second, we contribute to the budding field of cultural evolution by putting its hypotheses to the test. Our work on the evolution of cardinal lines within letters addressed the question whether cognitively appealing cultural forms need a protracted evolutionary process to arise (Morin 2017 in Cognitive Science and in Science news)

The shape of letters in more than 100 writing systems of the world, here grouped into 7 families, tends to obey precise visual constraints. Zoom Image
The shape of letters in more than 100 writing systems of the world, here grouped into 7 families, tends to obey precise visual constraints.

Beyond its immediate interest for the study of literacy's cognitive underpinnings, our research on the shape of letters is part of a broader attempt to integrate the methods of cultural history with those of experimental psychology. Our ongoing work on the evolution of the Vai syllabary of Liberia exemplifies this approach. Of all the invented writing systems that appeared in colonial or post-colonial contexts in the last two centuries, the Vai script is one of the best documented. In the 1980s, the study of Vai literacy proved crucial in refuting the view that literacy mechanically promotes logical or critical thinking. The Mint’s interest in Vai also stems from the script’s dynamic evolution­—it was not frozen in a canonical form until quite late. Lead by Piers Kelly, an expert on contemporary invented scripts who has documented first hand the complex Eskaya writing system and its associated invented language (Kelly 2016, see publications), our Vai project started with the construction of a dataset documenting the shape of Vai letters in the various historical stages that the syllabary went through, both historically and experimentally. 

Evolving artificial graphic codes

Experimental methods also help us in exploring the basic conditions that allow graphic codes to emerge. Humans are exceptionally good at inventing and learning communicative codes, especially spoken languages. But graphic codes emerged rarely in human evolution, in contrast to the universality of language. We hypothesise that this is due to the peculiar conditions of asynchronous communication, where a messenger imparts information to a recipient across time frames. Synchronous (or face-to-face) communication is grounded in interactional mechanisms such as turn-taking or repair, as well as pragmatic factors like common ground. In contrast, messengers and senders engaged in asynchronous communication had little common ground to share, and no opportunities to repair misunderstandings.

To test this hypothesis, we ask experimental participants to design graphic codes in our lab, using the expertise brought from the field of language evolution by post-doctoral researcher James Winters, in conjunction with Thomas Müller, a PhD student at the Mint. We usually set up a "referential communication experiment", adapted from classic work in experimental pragmatics to test our hypotheses. Participants can only interact with one another via black and white symbols. Their goal is to use these symbols to convey and distinguish between subtle shades of colours. One innovative aspect of our task is that participants do not receive direct feedback from the system about their performance. They can only use each other as guides, and can only guide each other by developing a graphic code from scratch. “Repair” signals (such as question marks) plays a crucial role here. The task appears daunting at first, but most participant pairs eventually succeed in building their own peculiar dialect, which they can use to solve the problems we set for them. Studying the evolution of these dialects, we have assessed the impact of synchrony and asynchrony on the development of these codes.

Yet laboratory experiments are limited in their demographic range (typically, a few Western undergraduates) and in the scale over which they unfold (two persons for a few hours). We want to move beyond these constraints by turning one of our referential communication games into a gaming app, the "Color Game", to be released in 2018 after two years of preparation with the game designers of Etter Studio, curators of the Museum of Digital Arts in Zurich [Etter Studio]. The advantages of a gaming app, compared to a traditional online experiment, have been underlined by several advocates of "smartphone psychology" [Geoffrey Miller]. Like the participants in our referential communication experiments, the players of the “color game” organise black and white symbols into graphic codes that they use to communicate about colours. The players may be from anywhere on the planet. They can play as often as they want with whomever they want. The app's sophisticated back-end interface guarantees that players remain entirely anonymous, and cannot contact their friends. We can realistically hope that the app will elicit the birth of a limited but genuine graphic language transcending linguistic and cultural boundaries, shared by hundreds of otherwise unrelated people. 

An early demonstration of the Color Game smartphone app, during one of the institute's outreach events in Jena. Zoom Image
An early demonstration of the Color Game smartphone app, during one of the institute's outreach events in Jena.

Visual communication beyond writing

Understanding the evolution of writing, the most powerful system of graphic communication known to us, requires us to understand the workings of other graphic codes that cannot be classified as writing: Mnemonic codes, flags and other heraldic emblems, symbols found on coins, etc. These codes, classically known as semasiographies, do not encode components of spoken languages. They are also drastically limited, compared to writing in the quantity and variety of information that they can encode. These limitations can teach us about the obstacles that blocked the development of writing systems in most cultures before Neolithic times. But their strengths tell us how far the human capacity for asynchronous communication may extend in the absence of writing. The Mint's study of semasiographic systems has two aims. We contribute to the anthropology of traditional mnemonic systems with the compilation of a database of Australian message sticks, and we pioneer an information-theoretic analysis of heraldic and numismatic symbols. Our overall goal is to discover how much information images can carry without encoding the sounds of language.

Message sticks are wooden tools that were used to assist in long-distance communication across Indigenous Australia. Typically, they are small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of the hand, and have a smooth surface engraved with a sequence of motifs. Message sticks were sent across country from a single individual and often to a single specified recipient. Their non-linguistic inscriptions were almost always accompanied by an oral message produced by the messenger, but to date the system underlying this unique graphic code has not been effectively reconstructed. The Australian Message Stick Database brings both images and documentation of message sticks together in one place, with standardised metadata to permit robust large-scale analysis. This project is cooperating with the National Museum of Australia, the British Museum and a number of institutions in Europe to produce a database of artefacts and their meaning, and to answer questions about the limitations and opportunities of non-linguistic codes in comparative perspective.


Dr. Kelly inspecting Australian message sticks conserved in a German museum where they suffered chemical contamination from construction materials used in the GDR period. Zoom Image

Dr. Kelly inspecting Australian message sticks conserved in a German museum where they suffered chemical contamination from construction materials used in the GDR period.

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